Exhumation project a work in progress
Did New Zealand’s earliest settlers from the United Kingdom come to a better life?
At a well attended public meeting in Milton last Tuesday to officially unveil the initial findings of the St John’s Burial Ground excavations project, University of Otago archaeology coleader, Professor Hallie Buckley, said these Milton pioneers were sold a story that New Zealand was going to be a much better place than the one they left.
Whether it was or not was still ‘‘a work in progress’’, she said.
From the death certificates, the archaeological team knows that 20 per cent of these people had tuberculosis - TB.
Scientists were analysing the strain to see if it was the same one that devastated the Maori population, Buckley said.
‘‘We’re interested in the DNA strain to understand how it is different to the one Maori had before Europeans arrived.’’
It was a vital piece of research, bearing in mind that TB has crept back into New Zealand in recent years, she said.
The other killer was accidents; broken bones spoke of violent trauma, she said. The average age of the adults exhumed was 45.8 years, and compared with the average life expectancy in the UK at the time, some of them lived out long lives in their new home.
But the infant mortality was high. Children died often. In the majority of the 16 graves of children and infants uncovered, only the teeth and hair remained.
‘‘This was rather confronting, but finding hair has given us the opportunity to understand health and disease,’’ Buckley said.
Hair holds a person’s history as well as their DNA.
Teeth tell the story of diet from childhood. Sugar was starting to be widely used at the time, so peoples’ teeth showed cavities, she said.
Pipe smoking was widespread; archaeologists could tell by the grooves in the back teeth.
Bones also bear witness to stress or illness. Malformation from rickets caused by malnutrition was obvious in one skeleton, yet to be fully identified.
DNA sequencing will start in October, which will compare genetic material found in bones, teeth and hair, with their descendents’ DNA taken from cheek-swab samples, to match-up what is known from historic records and death certificates, about the people buried in the cemetery.
The University of Otago research team excavating graves at St John’s Burial Ground at Milton
A coffin handle from the St John’s Burial Ground exhumation project.